Tuesday :: Apr 27, 2004

Takin' Care Of Business


by pessimist

A world apart, two lives deeply affected by Corning plant closure

ANYANG, China and STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - In the end, Ron Welch and other employees at Corning Inc.'s factory in State College, Pa., couldn't save their jobs because there was no way they could compete with Chinese workers willing to labor for an eighth of their salaries. Corning closed the television glass plant last June, putting Welch and about 1,000 others out of work. The company sold hundreds of tons of equipment from the factory to a Chinese company, which crated it up and shipped it across the Pacific Ocean.

Remember - the Bush (mis)Administration feels that outsourcing and offshoring are good for the American economy - the one that excludes 99% of us.

Chinese workers are now unloading the equipment and preparing to re-assemble it in a virtually identical factory in the city of Anyang in central China. The Chinese plant should be up and running by late June or early July. Chinese workers will line up along the production lines outside 1,300-degree furnaces, as American workers once did. They will melt, mold, press and cool television screens and rear funnels the same way, down to microscopic tolerances, that workers did in central Pennsylvania.

The closing of the Corning plant and the sale of its equipment to China is another chapter in the story of how nearly 3 million American factory workers have been thrown out of work since 2001, how low-wage nations such as China are taking those jobs and how the fates of managers and workers across the globe are now intertwined.

The Corning plant was a major industrial employer in State College, home to Penn State University, for 36 years. It drew workers from 16 central Pennsylvania counties, operating around the clock, seven days a week. For workers such as Welch, a 49-year-old farmer's son who started factory work two weeks after he graduated from high school, the job guaranteed a middle-class life. Welch earned a $17-an-hour base wage. During good times, overtime kept the money rolling in. He and his wife bought a parcel of land, built a home and raised three children. "We had big plans," said Welch. "Our home would be paid for, and I had a good job at Corning."

Just a reminder - even if this plant didn't leave the country, the overtime rules have just been changed - and the worker pays all the costs.

A native of central Pennsylvania, Welch had put in 12 years at Corning when word came that the plant was closing. Now he works part-time seasonal jobs driving snowplows and school buses.

The technology will be the same. The machinery will be the same. The faces will be different. So will the wages.

Instead of Ron Welch, who's lost his house to foreclosure and his wife to divorce, someone like Xu Wei will stand beside the production line.

While Welch wonders how to re-assemble his life, and whether he'll ever find another job paying $45,000 a year, Xu is looking ahead with optimism. With his annual salary of about $5,800, he's bought a comfortable three-bedroom apartment, rides a new motor scooter, relaxes with online video games and sends his parents some cash each month. "Our living standards have kept improving," said Xu, with his wife, Liu Mingxin, and their 5-year-old daughter, Yuying, sitting beside him in their tidy apartment.

Henan Ancai (pronounced Huh-nahn An-tsai) is one of the two major employers in Anyang. It's the largest television glass screen producer in China and the No. 4 producer in the world. It has 10,000 employees in plants across China. The company's chairman, Li Liu-en, is a jovial tycoon who sniffs a global re-ordering in the air and is determined that Henan Ancai will land on top. Holding forth in a room with easy chairs adorned with lace antimacassars, Li said his company enjoys across-the board cost advantages. "It's obvious that not only the raw materials are less expensive here, but also the energy costs are less expensive," he said. "And on average, our labor costs are about one-eighth or one-tenth of what they are in the United States."

Li looked puzzled at questions about how U.S. officials should deal with the exodus of U.S. manufacturing jobs, saying that Corning did the only thing it could. "I think Corning has made a very wise decision. It was losing money," Li said.

And that is all that matters. The hell with the social and economic damage this causes. I wouldn't care so much, but I have a problem where the top 1% manages huge improvements in their standard of living while the rest of us sink beneath the international waves.

Henan Ancai started out in 1990 as a glass factory, but branched into lighting, chemicals, air conditioning units and electronic components for China's armed forces.

And now, with Corning technology at their disposal, they become only more valuable - to the Chinese military.

Originally a government-owned company financed by the provincial government, it since has accepted limited investments from overseas Chinese. Li said it would soon get a listing on the Chinese stock market.

Just like China, which has spent the past quarter-century transforming itself from a state-run economy to a market-driven system, at Henan Ancai capitalist principles coexist with slogans that are oddly reminiscent of the era of Mao Zedong, the communist founder of modern China. Of course, the content of the slogans has changed since the days when Chairman Mao was the Great Helmsman, but the tone of exhortation remains. In the stairwells and hallways of four glass factories, slogans urge workers to compete. "Speed up to be part of the global market!" says one sign. Workers still toil under portraits of Chinese communism's patron saints - Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, and one sign declares: "The Chinese Communist Party is Upholding Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought."

"Downsize work forces and lower wages to be part of the global market!" Workers still toil under portraits of Multinational Corporatism's patron saints - Reagan, Cheney, Friedman, Wal-Mart and Bush, and one sign declares: "The American Republican Party is Defeating Marxism, Keynesianism and Unionized Labor Thought."

Thousands of workers at Henan Ancai gather each Monday morning at the plant's entrance for a flag-raising ceremony, a short talk on the company's week-ahead goals and to repeat in unison the company's 10 principles. "Be united, advance bravely!" the workers shouted on a recent Monday. "Be as good as one's words! ... Do pioneering work with hard effort! ... Win honor for the motherland!"

"Be divided, advance slavery!" the American workers shouted on a recent Monday. "Be as good as their words! ... Do productive work with more effort! ... Win honor for the corporate board!"

By almost any standard in China, the workers at Henan Ancai see their future as bright, partly because the conglomerate's high-volume, low-margin production has brought galloping growth. Last year, total sales approached $800 million. By 2010, it plans to be the largest TV glass screen manufacturer in the world.

When Xu Wei (pronounced Shoo Way) graduated from an engineering institute and started looking for a job 11 years ago, he wasn't sure whether to accept an offer from the company. But he did, and started out earning less than $50 a month. Since then, his salary has leaped almost tenfold, and he's become a foreman in charge of a maintenance group along the production line. The company won't say what its average worker earns, but it's probably less than half of what Xu, as a college graduate, makes. A wage of $100 per month in Henan is considered good.

Take heed, America. That's the wage level you will be expected to accept - IF you wish to work.

Many of the workers are single men who live in company-built dormitories and ride a company shuttle to the plant and back. Three years ago, Xu sold a 500-square-foot apartment and moved into a 1,200-square-foot apartment in a new development, South Lake New Village. Showing a visitor around his family's tidy apartment, Xu opened a drawer containing DVDs next to a 25-inch Sony television. "We watch movies. Look, `Terminator 3.'"

At Last! A Place For Ahnoldt!

Xu works 48 hours a week on rotating shifts and is on call at other times.

This is no way to have a life. You are always tired no matter how much you try to sleep. Yes - try. Two hours is about average. I did it for ten years.

How about you, Perfessor?

Even though Xu's salary hovers at about $483 a month, the couple can afford a microwave, a home computer and a broadband Internet connection, private dance lessons for their daughter and still save money toward buying a car.

Last year, the 31-year-old Xu joined China's ruling Communist Party."You get more chance for promotions," he said, "and it inspires you to work harder."

So if we join the Republican Party we get more of a chance for a promotion and still get to work harder? Such a Deal!

Most of the 1,000 workers the new factory needs have been hired. Xu struggled for an answer when asked about U.S. workers laid off by Corning, imagining that any setbacks would be temporary for them. Xu and his wife have known hardship. Xu's wife was one of 3,000 workers laid off last year from a bankrupt state lighting company. She now has limited medical coverage. She found temporary work as a sales clerk but has given up finding a permanent job. "For a person in my age group, it's very, very difficult. Only if you are under 25 can you find a job easily," said Liu, who at 31 is considered over the hill by many Chinese employers.

Take heed, America. This situation is coming to a nation near and dear to you.

Xu didn't know if he would work in the new plant. It's similar to other plants the company already operates. But workers at the company generally feel that the company's fast growth benefits them. Xu said some U.S. workers had visited Anyang to help in the initial setting-up of the former Corning production line. "I've had some contact with American workers when we installed equipment. They are very much like us. After finishing work, they go home or go to the bar," he said.

All the better to deal with the frustration of knowing life is as good as it's ever going to get.

Welch, who was a union vice president at Corning for seven years and president for the last two years, said he never considered going to China. "How could you go over there and put the plant back together that they took from you?" Welch said. He said he's had to fight off depression. "It just got to the point with the plant closing and losing everything I had that I was ready to give up," he said.

But Welch believes he's a survivor. "I'll be doing something. I don't know what it'll be, but I'll be doing something," he said. "I guess it makes you a stronger person, eventually."

Stronger to withstand the empty promises of the Republican Party of the BFEE/PNAC Petroleum Pirate Posse.


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pessimist :: 6:10 PM :: Comments (12) :: Digg It!